BALTIMORE — As the Rays head to Boston with a chance to knock the Red Sox to the edge, if not the end, of playoff contention, manager Joe Maddon wants his men instead focused on the bigger prize of running down the Yankees to win the American League East.
But a few more days like the Rays had Sunday and the wild card will suddenly become a primary topic of conversation.
The Rays lost another game Sunday to the last-place Orioles that they shouldn't have lost, 8-7. And they lost in ways they aren't supposed to, not after handing the bullpen a hard-earned lead, not after scoring seven runs (and hitting four home runs) and not with something as simple as the execution of a pickoff throw a key factor.
"Frustrating? Yeah," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "But hopefully we can take some momentum into Boston. I'm looking for it to be a big series for us."
All that's keeping it from being bigger is that the Red Sox had an even worse weekend, getting swept by the surging White Sox while the Rays lost two of three to the last-place Orioles.
While the Rays (83-53) remained 2½ behind the Yankees — who actually lost Sunday — they are seven ahead of the White Sox (who are 76-60 and more focused on closing the 31/2-game gap with the Central-leading Twins), and 7½ ahead of the Red Sox (76-61). If the Rays can just split their remaining 26 games, the White Sox have to go 21-5 to pass them and the Red Sox 21-4.
"We're fine," Maddon said. "It's two out of three."
Maddon insisted there was plenty to be pleased with, especially the way they battled back from the 4-1 sixth-inning deficit, with Longoria and B.J. Upton hitting two-run homers, and the feel-great story of Rocco Baldelli hitting a two-run homer on his first swing of the season in the seventh.
"It's not just about the fact that we lost," he said. "The fight was great, the way we came back was great."
But there was plenty to be unhappy about, too.
The error on the first-inning pickoff throw — their first after a team-record-tying 10 games without — was charged to starter Wade Davis, but fill-in first baseman Ben Zobrist was at least a negligible accomplice, and it led to two runs.
After taking a 5-4 lead on the Longoria and Upton long balls, the Rays gave it back in messy fashion, Dan Wheeler and Chad Qualls teaming to allow four runs.
Wheeler, pitching for the first time since Aug. 27 (which Maddon took the blame for), got one out and walked two. "I didn't make any pitches, that's all it was about," Wheeler said. "You walk guys, good things don't happen."
Then more bad things happened as Qualls, while getting the ground balls he was seeking, allowed three consecutive run-scoring singles then walked the bases loaded.
Making it worse, Randy Choate capped the mess by allowing a sac fly to Luke Scott to make it 8-5. Making it more frustrating, Upton had a chance to throw out a runner at the plate on three consecutive plays — and didn't get any of them.
"We come back like that in the sixth and take the lead and as a bullpen guy, you kinda pride yourself that you keep the lead, you pretty much shut the door down," Wheeler said. "And it didn't happen (Sunday)."
No matter how the Rays want to look at it, whether to knock the Sox back, or to close in on the Yankees, what they have to do is win. And with their next nine games against Boston, Toronto and New York, the sooner the better.
"It's not about eliminating Boston," Maddon said. "It's about us catching New York."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.